Robots: Seeking Jobs Or World Domination?

Robot from Edinburgh University
Dark The Robot is a very friendly chap

I’ve always been interested in robots. I don’t know who’s to blame – R2D2, Twiki or the Gunslinger. I have a soft spot for books like ‘Robopocalypse‘ and actively seek out discussions about how long we have to wait until we hit the technological singularity. So when I was asked by the Beltane Public Engagement Network (thanks Sarah!) to go along to one of their events titled ‘Robots Rise‘, it’s fair to say there wasn’t too much arm-twisting going on.

Robotic Historic

At first, the idea of discussing robots in the lavish and dated wooden and mirrored surroundings of The Famous Spiegeltent felt slightly surreal. Now I realise it was ideal. Why? The Spiegeltent was built in 1920 – exactly the same year that the word ‘robot’ was used for the first time ever in a play called ‘R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)‘ by Karel Capek.

The word ‘robot’ in Capek’s native Czech means the forced labour that serfs were required to carry out on their master’s lands. Of course, in fiction, robots often appear as metaphors for human problems, whether slavery or racism. But as they become increasingly visible in society, will we end up teaching them such concepts as cruelty – or will they be capable of learning such flaws themselves? In essence, how human do we actually want our artificial intelligence to be?

The session was led by Subramanian Ramamoorthy, Lecturer in Robotics at Edinburgh University who gave his expert views on how far robots are already intertwined with our daily lives and how much further that’s likely to develop. A fascinating chat, here’s what I took away from the session:

When Will Robots Take Over The World?

Let’s cut to the chase and start with the million dollar question.

The answer? Not any time soon. I get the sense that it’s a question that researchers get asked way too often.There’s various reasons why robots actually taking over the world is unlikely but high up there on the list is the simple fact that there’s no logical reason that they’d want to. Even humans don’t seek world domination (well, most of us). And, even if they did change their minds, their batteries wouldn’t last (honestly).

Interestingly, many people seem to assume that robots will develop some malevolent intention as they evolve – perhaps a view that’s been heavily influenced by Hollywood (e.g. Skynet). Yet the reality is that most developments in robotics currently focus on assistive, rather than disruptive, technologies. The most obvious future uses of robotics involve helping humans to carry out manual and repetitive tasks (for example, cleaning cups) or remote exploration, for example.

Still, despite all of the evidence to the contrary by the experts, I still find it hard to ignore the march of progress under Moore’s Law and this animated graphic which shows just how long until computers will have the same power as the human brain. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Will Robots Take Our Jobs?

At one level, it’s already happening. If you’ve ever ordered a book from Amazon, it’s likely to have been physically selected for you in the warehouses by a robot. Amazon didn’t pay $775 million to buy Kiva Systems Inc. last year for nothing. Returning to their charging stations automatically, these 24-hour workers won’t be asking for a coffee break any time soon.

Of course, there is always the possibility of unrest if robots displace vast numbers of workers. But in many ways, the more interesting question is how this technology could be applied to complement existing human roles. Consider how we currently search for a missing person for example. If there’s no trace found, it may be very difficult to justify the cost of a policeman searching a remote location for an extended period of time. But the cost/benefit analysis of asking a robot to carry out the task for an extended period of time may look entirely different.

For example, it’s not hard to see how any army will be able to make use of these (don’t worry, you’re not alone if you start to get a little creeped out by progress here):-

Robots In Space

Robots have been up in orbit for a while. But far from simply replicating fiction, it’s useful to understand why they’re actually required. Whilst an astronaut’s job might appear glamorous, the reality is that much of the daily routine is just that – a mass of repetitive boring jobs. I suspect few astronauts dreamed that the spectrum of tasks that they’d be required to carry out when pushing the boundaries of mankind would involve quite so many requests to empty the toilet on the International Space Station…

Robots are great at the manual tasks. Robonaut 2 is by all accounts carrying out a great job on the ISS and what’s more, he’s pretty funny on Twitter too (@AstroRobonaut).

But Why Focus on Humanoid Shapes?

The question was asked why we seem to be focusing on building more humanoid robot shapes than purpose-built structures. It’s clear that having a cute wee fella that speaks to you like Dark the Robot (pictured above) on a stage brings a favourable response that gets people talking. It’s almost PR for the field as it entices people into learning more about the subject.

There seem to be different lines of thought on this topic and the question of whether we are focusing on developing humanoid robots too readily is a source of real debate within the robotic community that’s likely to continue.

Misconceptions?

Those of us who live outwith the rarefied circles of AI/robotic research but within ready reach of great films appear to have an overly-optimistic assumption about the current rate of progress. Continued developments enable us to continually improve but the evolution of our robotic abilities still lags behind when compared to the development of a human child, for example. Progress is being made but it’s important to remember that in general, we’re still only able to teach robots how to carry out certain tasks with effort – we might have developed a robot that learned how to fold towels but it’s still taking 25 minutes per towel.

An Ethical Stramash?

Surprisingly not, for the most part. Despite only making incremental advances in the development of robotics, those involved in robotics apparently get asked questions about ethics frequently, way before any such issues could be faced. The reality is that, except in very specific areas (such as medical technology), researchers are still a long way from having to really tackle particularly taxing ethical problems.

So What Does The Future Hold?

Good question. Everything. And yet, many important limitations remain.

When you actually see a robot in the flesh (so to speak) as I did on Friday, I couldn’t help but be struck again by precisely how again complex they really are. OK, so we might laugh at their basic footballing skills, but the reality is that the work that’s taken place to get to that stage is incredible.

The reason that any robot ever moves is down to a complex combination of factors involving software programming and hardware – every joint contains a motor, that is activated by programming in combination the use of its other senses, such as vision (identifying colour and shape), touch sensors, accelerometers and the use of sonar, amongst others. Putting all that together so that it works as intended is no small task, to say the least.

One of the stated goals of the Robot World Cup is to evolve the technology so that a team of robot footballers can actually defeat the human World Cup winners by 2050. Is it likely? I don’t see why not when you take a look at the most recent robot from DARPA.

Or Is The Future Already Here?

If you really think about it, we’re actually pretty far down the line in some ways already. Estimates state that by the end of 2013, there will be one smartphone for every five people in the world. To recycle the often-repeated statement, every single one of those has processing power far in advance of that used by the Apollo moon landing programme (as an aside, I just found out that you can actually build your own working replica NASA Apollo Landing Computer if you’ve got both the inclination and a spare $3,000).

Then consider what Google and the other search engines are accomplishing by indexing the word’s information. Start to tie that data in with what might be capable via wearable technology such as Google Glass and you really start to get a glimpse of the future.

For now, it seems that the field is focused on building fundamentally better robots (physically) whilst improving the existing skills of interaction (via programming advances). We’re still a long way away from developing robots that are self-powered with the ability to repair themselves at will. But whatever the evidence to the contrary, I can’t help but think that this is another area where things are just going to accelerate in the future.

It’s a fascinating topic. I’d love to fast-forward twenty years and revisit this post again. But in the meantime, I’ll leave you with one thought.

Rapidly ageing population of the world – meet ASIMO.

@dugcampbell

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